"In relationship to one dead you have criterion whereby you can test yourself... it is one's duty to love [those] we do not see...we cannot be set aside because death separates them from us, for duty is eternal."
I spent today reading Kierkegaard's "Works of Love". Specifically, a piece called 'the work of love in remembering one dead' whereby he asserts that actively remembering our dead is an act of duty that epitomizes the most unselfish, freest, and most faithful love. Perhaps, it brought me so easily to tears because it is that time of year when my heart, like brittle blown glass, is more fragile than robust. Or, perhaps, it resonated because his words offered marrow to my own philosophy and dutiful practice.
Kierkegaard asserts that the work of love in remembering one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish love. It is unrequited, for the dead can never reciprocate:
"O, if one were accustomed to truly love unselfishly, one would certainly remember the dead differently from the way one usually does after the first period, frequently rather than brief, in which one loves the dead inordinately enough with cries and clamour."
And the work of love in remembering the dead is a work of the freest love. There is no coercion nor compulsion to continue loving the dead. It is an act of authenticity and freewill, not an act of demand or obligation. To remember one dead is intentional and quite different than simply not forgetting soon after the death. It withstands the test of time:
"With respect to one dead... nothing is coercive at all. On the other hand, the loving memory of one dead has to protect itself against...new impressions to expel the memory, and it has to protect itself against time...Time has a dangerous power; in time is is so easy to make a beginning again and thereby to forget...In the meantime, the multiplicity of life's demands beckons to one, the living beckon to one and say: come to us, we will take care of you. One who is dead, however, cannot beckon."
Finally, the work of love in remembering the dead is a work of the most faithful love. It requires unwavering and enduring devotion, for neither affection, nor love, nor strength, nor kindness can be returned from one who is dead. Our dead do nothing to hold on to us; still, in remembering our dead, we love disinterestedly, freely, and faithfully. We hold a place in our lives for their psychological presence. This work of love in remembering the dead is faithful because our dead cannot compel steadfastness of our covenant to remember- the one we made at the moment of death when we vow emphatically, "I will never forget.". Rather, our dead remain passive and unchanged, unable to hold us accountable for fulfilling our promise to remember:
"Little by little, as the dead crumbles away, the memory crumbles away between the fingers and one does not know what becomes of it...if love still abides, it is most faithful."
As I finished reading this piece, tears filled my eyes. I felt vindicated in some small way, as if the world who had so long misunderstood my seemingly strange, unceasing allegiance to my dead child was woefully misguided in its assumptions. The love I hold for her in my heart and the space I allow for her in my life is an act of unselfishness, freewill, and faithfulness. This sounds much more palatable than psychopathologizing the bereaved who choose to remember their dead. And in so doing, I have been better able to learn, grow, endure, and mostly to love all those around me:
"If you love one dead, then remember him lovingly, and learn from him, precisely as one who is dead; learn the kindness of thought, the definiteness in expression, the strength in unchangeableness, the pride in life which you would not be able to learn as well from any human being, even the most highly gifted...Remember one dead and learn in just this way to love the living disinterestedly, freely, faithfully... Remember one who is dead, and in addition to the blessing which is inseparable from this work of love, you will also have the best guidance to understanding life; that it is one's duty to love the men we do not see, but also those we do see."
Today, I took a seven-mile journey by foot to the Amitabha Stupa in Sedona, Arizona with my daughter's ashes in my pack. I've never had the opportunity to travel the red clay of Sedona with her, and this was a beautiful, albeit painful, trek. Thank you Angie (Dallas), Bianca (Emma), Sari (Jacob), Kirsten (Emma), Zulma, Todd (Courtney & Nicholas), Yvette (Gabriella), Jimmy, Kim (Tyler), Debbie (Sarah), Rob, Kara (Dakota), Katie (Blake), Anna (Jared), Kelli (Jennifer, also 7/27), my other MISS Foundation friends, and mostly my beloved children for pausing, just a moment, with me today. I am both sad and very grateful.
A Wave of Surrender...
14 years ago, on July 27, 1994, my beloved child died.
I was catapulted into dark, deep waters where waves of pain and loss crashed down upon me relentlessly. Grief, like a powerful rip tide, ensnared me and then carried me far from the familiar shore. I could no longer see my home between the waves that hammered me, and I fought for even a glimpse of the recognizably blue sky. The waves persisted ... and tumbled me, over and over and over, disorienting and confusing me. All was darkness and panic. I fought it. Occasionally, I would reach the coveted surface for a desperate, gasp of saline-laced air only to be wrenched back under moments later. Pockets full of time, direction, and reason were emptied into the hungry ocean. Grief filled my lungs. I would not survive unless I surrendered.
And so I surrendered.
Like any good surfer knows, there is no other way to survive this type of Herculean force. Thus they teach the mantra: Surrender to the waves. So, too, it is with the tide of grief; and the battle, which I could never win, ended. I allowed the victor to take me adrift to unfamiliar shorelines and places of discomfort. I became one with both the quiescence and wild motion of the waves. I was mindful of grief‘s proclivities to ebb and flow, tolerant of its unpredictability, patient with the bitter taste it left in my mouth; and in exchange, it became kinder to me. We became cautious comrades. Eventually, as does the rip tide, the sea of grief released me to the shore. It spit me, grateful, from its jowl like Jonah from the whale’s rancid belly, and I found my way back home. But the places I had seen while on my unintended and uninvited abduction would change me forever.
This was how I survived in those early months and years. I allowed myself to just be. I stopped questioning myself – my impulses, my tears, my thoughts, my rituals, my wishes, my suffering, my sanity- and I let it be. There was a certain peace that followed my decision to surrender. I no longer had to pretend to be “fine, thank you”, and I would no longer be the metamorphosed elephant at baby showers where only miracles are welcomed. I no longer punished my failure to complete grieving within the allotted three-month time period by subjecting myself to the insufferable insensitivity of others. I could relinquish the rehearsed smile and perfunctory hugs and, instead, acknowledge my ongoing sadness, isolation, and despair. I could be- me.
Here I am, 14 years later, and filled with gratitude for having surrendered to grief. My daughter’s life was worthy of every tear I shed into my ocean of pain. Her death was worthy of my armistice with the waves of grief. Our love was worthy of a moratorium on normalcy and mediocrity. Simply, she was worthy of whatever time and space I needed to mourn her physical absence in my life. I am still, on occasion, overtaken by the tidal waves of grief. I don’t fear their arrival, and I am more prepared, now, to be transported to distant shores. I carry her flag with me as I travel, bury it deep in distant sands, and I hope to help others know her through knowing me. I am stronger and have faith that I will survive and learn from what comes next. And I trust that the waves will release me, as they do, and I will come home once again.
Originally written for a feature piece in "A Glow in the Woods", a beautiful blog for "mommas of lost babies" --
Thank you Janis and Ferdinand for this opportunity...
The universe, filled with nebulae, black holes, and the mysteries of time and space, was begotten from atomic chaos. Billions of years ago, all space, matter, and energy in our known universe was contained in a "volume less than one-trillionth the size of a needle point" or about the size of a single atom (deGrasse Tyson, 2004). This preplanetary pandemonium would impregnate our mother in this massive cosmos - Earth's solar system. Out of this frenetic and violent chaos, would come life, order, and beauty. These are key principles of physics and astrophysics: supernovas that outshine entire galaxies are born from massive stellar explosions, their remnants capable of forming ominous black holes or neutron stars and pulsars that are up to eight times larger than our sun; and the untempered chaos of a seemingly libertine universe gives rise to the magnificence of the cosmos.
On July 27, 1994, my own universe imploded when my baby died. I've found myself present with sadness and absent words this July, as I have been during the past 14 voyages of the Earth about its star between June and August. My grief feels like the fledgling cosmos. Chaotic, disordered, confused, violently out of control. Still, I take comfort in reflecting on the genesis of our macrocosm.
Grief, like our universe, is often indescribable; it is elusive, creviced, and wordless. There exist within it many great mysteries, places unexplored and unknowable given the ephemerality of time. One pithy moment of grief gives rise to a new precipice, like a pulsar in my own universe of loss. I'm sitting quietly with this idea, and I'm reminded of Nietzsche's notion that order will come of the chaos, meaning of the confusion, and that I can, indeed, have my dancing star amidst it all. Caret initio et fine.
Seeking to forget makes exile all the longer; the secret of redemption lies in remembrance.
Richard von Weizsaecker
I picked up a new book last week on the recommendation of a colleague: A Cry Unheard: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness by James J. Lynch. I only wish I'd had this book in hand when I conducted my own research on the effects of social support on women after the death of a baby. This seminal book is filled with clinical research on the dangers of social isolation, including the effects on the body and health. Lynch captured data demonstrating the devastating health consequences of shame, anxiety, anger, and fear that was unrecognized, undetected, and most importantly, unheard. I think this fact, for me, was the most important. It wasn't that the emotions themselves were "bad" or "negative" as contemporary theorists might imply. It was that the person experiencing them, and others too, did not acknowledge the emotions that created the problematic outcomes. They were abandoned- both by others, and also by themselves.
In sum, he found that such social disenfranchisement can lead to fluctuations in blood pressure and respiration, depressed immune functioning, heart disease, hypertension, and a host of other physiological maladies. He notes that: "Those lacking social support, those who live alone, those who struggle with chronic loneliness, those who lose a loved one, all exhibit sharply increased risks of dying prematurely."
I've posted a great deal about narcissism, grief, and finding gratitude- and how, when the time is right, there is an imperative to move beyond our own suffering and see the suffering of the other. There are some bereaved who may never move to that space where they are willing, thus able, to do that. Lynch calls this the "black hole". He says: "Like black holes in space, such individuals absorb all light and all objects around them while emitting nothing back. Nothing escapes their...emptiness."
Conversely, he recommends looking "out into the world beyond the confines of your own skin...listening to a bird sing can lower blood pressure...gazing at the stars" too. "Listening to one's fellow (hu)man in dialogue can lower blood pressure." Basically, moving beyond the necessary narcissism of early grief.
Lynch believes that "dialogue is the elixir of life and chronic loneliness its lethal poison". But what about the dialogue often aimed at bereaved parents? You know- those promptings to "move on", "God has a plan for you", "at least it wasn't one of the older ones", "you can have more", "everything happen for a reason", "time heals all wounds", and "aren't you done grieving yet"s? Lynch said that dialogue can also be used to create distance, that it can be used to manipulate. He asserts that "empty language suppresses hope...and is spoken from outside our own hearts...(where) human dialogue is ruptured, destroyed, or reduced to a living hell" when abused in this way. He termed it toxic talk, and far too many bereaved parents have experienced a litany of such dialogue.
I deeply appreciated Lynch's honest explorations as a medical doctor, professor, and human being. It confirmed that the bereaved should be sensitive to their own needs; and then, when ready, actively engage in moving beyond the self. The (temporarily) non-bereaved should engage in dialogue that is comforting and from the heart. They should not seek to cure or heal or absolve. Rather, they should seek only to be with the suffering. They should use words with great care and intention, for it is easy to destroy a fragile other with a few, seemingly benign, syllables.
Allow them to remember, and invite them warmly back from exile.
The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.